Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Close your eyes & imagine seeing the art

Laura Cumming, Close your eyes and imagine seeing the art world’s treasures as if for the first time, The Guardian, 10 May 2020

The museums of Europe have begun reopening their doors to art lovers desperate to see old favourites and new works.

I am cursing my bad luck not to be stuck in lockdown in the Prado. A friend wishes she had stowed away in a closet before they bolted the doors of the National Gallery. Others would give anything for a week in the Rijksmuseum, a day in the Uffizi, an hour with Rembrandt or Vermeer, even just a few minutes with a Samuel Palmer moonscape in the Ashmolean or a Turner sunrise at Tate Britain. Museums are places of the heart.

We see art in time and place; we cannot see it otherwise. Of course there are other whereabouts of the works we most long to set eyes on again, during this evil pandemic: the cave paintings at Chaumet in France, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation in a Florentine monastery, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty coiled in the glistening waters of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. These were all chosen in an unofficial and entirely self-selecting Twitter survey (mine), along with Leonardo’s The Last Supper and James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspaceframing the blue heavens above Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

But almost every other beloved artwork lived in a museum; and some people simply wanted to be in a museum itself, wandering the rooms, chancing upon unexpected or unknown visions, making the pilgrimage to visit a cherished old friend.

This became possible once again in Germany this month. The Barberini Museum in Berlin’s Potsdam reopened on Wednesday with a Monet exhibition. Visitors have to book in advance for a timed slot in front of the haystacks and waterlilies, wearing a mandatory mask. At the Brandenburg State Museum for Modern Art, in Cottbus, 60 miles from Berlin, everyone is required to keep 1.5 metres apart, the exact measurement being indicated on the walls and floors. At the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, however, they merely ask you to cover mouth and nose.

The Kunsthalle in Zurich reopens on Tuesday, followed on 19 May by MHKA, the museum of modern art in Antwerp. Its director, Bart De Baere, has compared museums with parks: “Spaces in which the individual experience can intertwine with the public space of being together.” Perhaps safe distancing in Belgian parks is more self-disciplined than here. One can only hope so, given De Baere’s unfortunate declaration that MKHA is “ready to serve as a test room for the post-lockdown experience”.

How are art museums to reopen without endangering staff and visitors? Cimam, the international committee for museums and collections, has already laid out some unarguably rational rules. Timed entry, limited viewing slots, one-way systems. Online booking, plexiglass barriers, face masks and hand gel. No paper, no maps, no headphones; obviously no group tours.

How ideal, you might think: gone are the guides laboriously instructing their victims in the “facts” of a painting, the poor crosslegged kids required to count all the dogs in a room, the visitors struggling for a glimpse of the masterpiece at the back of a pressing scrum. But numbers must be restricted, and movement solo. Alone together… like a Zoom conference.

Clear enough, except when geopolitics enters the picture. In China, where museums reopened last month, the requisite social distance is 1.5 metre, as in Germany, but in Britain it will surely be 2 metres. Apparently, the viral plume of a sneeze measures differently across the continents. On the other hand, there are temperature tests at the door of Chinese museums, and ID plus quarantine data are required. Whereas in Britain we have T-shirt masks, disputed apps and the tragic augury of the Turkish gowns consignment.

For now we must work with what we have, but what we have is so exceptional. Velázquez in Edinburgh, Monet in Glasgow, Goya in Cambridge: people on Twitter yearned to see Poussin in Dulwich and Gwen John in Sheffield, to be reassured by Holbein’s just and measured drawings in London, to see Alasdair Gray’s Hillhead mural in Glasgow and Blake’s electrifying visions at Millbank. Over and again, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at Kenwood House was cited: the great king holding court over his solitary studio, stern yet sympathetic, undeceived and yet compassionate. He might lead us all: a strong arm through the pandemic.

Nobody knows when we will walk through our galleries again. From my window, I can see the bus that took me to Tate Britain, the National Gallery, the Courtauld and the bridge across the Thames to Tate Modern. But there’s no distancing at the stop; and nobody wears a mask. A driver on that route died last month from the virus.

It is not easy to see how our mighty institutions can reopen without physical danger entering. But at least visitors have a choice, unlike the guards, cleaners, receptionists, caterers and others who may be daily exposed. How imponderable the risk is apparent in Germany, where galleries are taking the precaution of propping their doors open – just in case people touch them.

If B&Q can open, argued a friend, then why not Tate Britain? Museums are not shops; we don’t touch the goods. Art lovers are cautious and sensible. Perhaps, but who would risk someone else’s health just because they couldn’t wait another week to see a Rembrandt? The lucky truth is that the government slyly avoided telling our museums when to shut, and the decision to reopen will lie with conscientious directors and trustees. But when that moment comes, it will mark the end of a kind of blindness. The exhilaration of seeing art once more will be unprecedented in our lifetimes.

 Laura Cumming is the Observer’s art critic

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